Relationship to place: positioning Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives in classroom pedagogies

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Relationship to place:

positioning Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives in classroom pedagogies

Neil Harrison

Department of Education

Macquarie University

New South Wales 2109


Maxine Greenfield

Aboriginal Education and Training Directorate

Department of Education and Training

New South Wales



This project is based on research conducted with twelve schools in New South Wales, Australia. It examines how each school incorporates Aboriginal perspectives in its Kindergarten to Year 6 program with a view to identifying some principles of quality practice. As we interviewed teachers in these schools, it became clear that there is considerable confusion over the difference between Aboriginal perspectives and Aboriginal knowledge with both concepts being used interchangeably to teach syllabus content and information about Aboriginal people. We began to look for ways in which Aboriginal knowledge might be produced in schools and classrooms as other than a commodification of Aboriginal cultures and histories. We found that the essence of Aboriginal knowledge and identity performed through the telling of local stories and histories characterises the very learning that is most difficult to teach.


The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (MCEECDYA, 2008, p. 8) identifies the need for all Australian children to ‘understand and acknowledge the value of Indigenous cultures and possess the knowledge, skills and understanding to contribute to, and benefit from, reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians’. The Australian Curriculum and Assessment Reporting Authority (ACARA, 2010) has acknowledged the importance of reconciliation and is currently writing Indigenous perspectives into the national curriculum ‘to ensure that all young Australians have the opportunity to learn about, acknowledge and respect the history and culture of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders’. The Department of Education in each of the states and territories of Australia requires teachers to embed Aboriginal perspectives across all Key Learning Areas (KLAs) from Kindergarten to Year 6 (Harrison, 2008). Of course, these goals are not new; they have had a mixed reception in Australian schools over the last 15 years (Harrison, 2010, 2007; Konigsberg and Collard, 2002; Craven, 1996, 1998).

In many cases, teachers openly admit that they know nothing about Aboriginal people and therefore question how they can be expected to include Aboriginal perspectives in their programs (New South Wales Department of Education and Training and NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group Incorporated, 2004). Others argue that non-Aboriginal teachers should not be teaching about Aboriginal cultures, knowledge and identity because the children really only learn a set of generalisations about Aboriginality (Pearson, 2009; Nakata, 2002). Nakata (2007) consistently identifies a problem with non-Aboriginal teachers trying to represent Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives to non-Aboriginal children insofar as the student’s understandings can become rigid and stereotypical. Bill Green (2010) encapsulates this very dilemma in his lucid discussion of curriculum reproduction and representation, where he explores the very question of whether it is ever possible to break through mere representations of others to produce a learning that is authentic and (Ab)original.

But of course, this is not only a problem for the academy, many schools are also searching for ways of creating ‘real’ learning experiences directed at reconciling the relation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children. We will see how 12 primary schools in New South Wales, Australia are engaging with the theory and practice of knowledge production through their work on reconciliation.

The research project

The paper provides an overview of the current work being done by the 12 schools in this study, as well as documenting what we consider to be the highlights of their Aboriginal education programs. The project initially aimed to identify what constitutes quality teaching of Aboriginal perspectives in New South Wales schools, with a strong focus on Aboriginal people living in contemporary Australia rather than in the past.

In examining ‘good teaching’, we did not want to reinforce what Connell (2009, p. 217) describes as the current ‘audit culture’ surrounding the evaluation and assessment of quality teaching, a culture that is usually instituted from above and governed by standardised testing regimes and ‘multivariate quantitative research on school and teacher effectiveness’. We did not want to be perceived by teachers to be the all-knowing outsiders coming to the school to correct their teaching. We were not attempting to evaluate the ‘competencies’ of the teacher to incorporate Aboriginal perspectives in their programs, rather we wanted to promote a critical discussion around the work of teachers and the concepts that constituted the very basis of teaching in Aboriginal education, Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives.

As the research progressed, we discovered considerable confusion over the use of Aboriginal perspectives and Aboriginal knowledge, with the two concepts being widely used to refer to the syllabus content that is taught about Aboriginal people, including for example, Dreaming stories and the Stolen Generations. We endeavour in this paper to clarify these concepts and to suggest how teachers might incorporate Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives, without recreating some of the stereotypical representations that are often an effect of current pedagogies.

We suggest that Aboriginal knowledge is quite different to content and information, with knowledge being produced through the school’s relations with its Aboriginal community. This will be explored and developed towards the end of the paper, but at this point it is worth noting how knowledge has come to be viewed as an increasing complex notion that is now linked to power and identity. Green (2010, p. 452) argues:

that knowledge, now problematized and more thoroughly complexified, and arguably always in a dialectical relationship with power and identity, remains central to the curriculum inquiry project. In this regard, what this means is an emphasis not just on epistemology but also, and more importantly, on representation, with the latter to be understood, I contend, as a key and recurring issue for curriculum theoretical interrogation and elaboration.

Indeed this paper aims to interrogate and elaborate the concept of knowledge as it is represented though the teaching of Aboriginal perspectives in the New South Wales curriculum. Finally, we use the term Aboriginal in the context of the Aboriginal Education policy of New South Wales, Australia, and to refer to the original inhabitants of the state (where the research was conducted).


There were 12 primary schools involved in the study, eight from Sydney, New South Wales and four from the Central coast immediately north of Sydney. The schools on the cental coast were all rural schools, with student numbers ranging from 153 to 450 and with teachers who often had close links with the community. The eight schools in Sydney ranged from those located in low income areas to a school on the high-income northern beaches. The resources available to these schools vary enormously, depending on the income of the school and its community. Enrolments ranged from 40 to 890 students with the average around 500 students. At one school on the central coast of Sydney, about 25 percent of enrolments were Aboriginal students, while another school had 759 students enrolled with no identified Aboriginal students. A school on the northern beaches had eight Aboriginal students enrolled. Aboriginal student enrolments therefore ranged from zero to around 25 percent, with schools located in a wide variety of socio-economic areas. It should be noted that this project was designed to look at how Aboriginal perspectives are incorporated in school curricula, irrespective of whether they had Aboriginal student enrolments.

Each school received two visits from the research team. On the first visit, teachers from each stage, and members of the school executive were interviewed to find out how Aboriginal perspectives were incorporated across the school. A list of questions was sent to the school prior to our visit, seeking information on school enrolments, teacher numbers, who has responsibility for Aboriginal education in the school, links to the community, definitions of Aboriginal perspectives, national testing results, and the whole school philosophy. As we spoke with teachers about their programs, we recorded what they said in writing. The quotations in this paper are a paraphrase of what was said rather than a verbatim transcription of interviews.

During our first visit to each school, we asked teachers what they would like us to ‘do’ on our return visit. Some schools wanted to know what other schools were doing to incorporate Aboriginal perspectives in their programs, others wanted an explanation of the new Aboriginal Education and Training (AET) policy, while most schools wanted some ideas on how they could include Aboriginal perspectives in particular aspects of their program including the NSW Connected Outcomes Group (COGS) of units. Five of the eight schools in Sydney, and one of the four schools on the central coast noted the difficulties of connecting with their local community, and wanted us to provide contacts and links with Aboriginal people.

The theoretical framework for the approach drew on the work of Freebody (2003), Cochran-Smith & Lytle (2009) and on Kamberelis and Dimitriadis’ (2008, p. 389) explication of the power of focus groups to ‘elicit and validate collective testimonies’ in the school setting. Freebody (2003) and Cochran-Smith & Lytle (2009) discuss education research designed to study and solve practical problems in schools, that is how do teachers incorporate Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives in school programs? And we took the position of action researchers to concentrate on ‘professional self-improvement through focused collaboration’ (Freebody, 2003, p. 87). We recognised that both the researcher and the participants are involved in the production of the data insofar as they act and react to each other (Freebody, 2003). Indeed the production of knowledge in this project was a collaboration among the teachers and researchers.

As well as asking teachers to tell us about their practice, we planned to offer ideas and activities that they could use in their classrooms. We wanted the research to have reciprocal benefits, including practical skills for the teachers along with the data for us as the researchers. In accordance with the methods employed by Kamberelis and Dimitriadis (2008) to harness the power of focus groups, we sought to engage the teachers in the process of reflecting on the methods they use to provide children with learning experiences of contemporary Aboriginal Australia.

In focusing on the concepts of Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives, we wanted to find out how far schools can go in including Aboriginal perspectives in their curriculum before they (unconsciously) begin to perpetuate the objectified narratives and stereotypical discourses that they are trying to interrupt. We viewed this process of objectification as teaching students a metalanguage about Aboriginal people, and it raises the question of how teachers can avoid, what Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2003, p. 39) cogently describes as the ‘dehumanising’ effects of this metalanguage.

We will see in this paper that in order to avoid this process of dehumanisation, quality pedagogy in Aboriginal contexts includes more than a phone call to an Aboriginal dance agency, painting a mural on a school wall, or thorough lesson planning. We were told time and again throughout this project about the need for schools to make serious and ongoing contact with Aboriginal people in their community if students were to leave the primary school at the end of Year 6 with a strong and enduring sense of connection to, and respect for Aboriginal people.

Current approaches

Schools are using a range of approaches to include Aboriginal perspectives and to ensure that teachers are ‘culturally competent’. Most schools observe Sorry Day, and program activities for National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week, if they have Aboriginal students. Schools include sets of readers such as Indij Readers (2003) and Plenty Stories (Albert, 2008), along with a range of other texts including The Rabbits (Marsden & Tan, 2000), A is for Aunty (Russell, 2000) and Too many Captain Cooks (Tucker, 1994) in their programs. All schools ‘cover’ the strand in Human Society and its Environment (HSIE) on the effects of colonisation and many teach (about) identity through units such as Being Australian. Several schools include work on Aboriginal tools like woomeras and boomerang throwing, in the New South Wales Board of Studies unit on Machines. Two schools include Traditional Aboriginal games (Australian Government, 2010). Others invite an Aboriginal person to the school to work with children on a mural, while many schools have established a ‘bush-tucker’ garden in the school yard. Several schools devote a day of activities to teaching children about Aboriginal culture, with one school reporting:

Aboriginal Cultural Day is a big day at the school. We set up stations for each stage – art, music, games. Kids dress up in black, yellow and red T-shirts. These days help to get the parents into the school. They give the kids a place in the school and help them to identify.

Staff at most schools receive some training (about one hour) in the New South Wales policy on Aboriginal education, although several in this study were not aware of the new policy released for the state in 2009. Generally, schools take the grand slam approach to Aboriginal knowledge, including hiring a professional Aboriginal dance troupe to perform at the school; asking Elders to work with children on a mural or to tell stories, and engaging children in NAIDOC week activities. We will take the position below that this may be the more effective way of actually including and producing Aboriginal knowledge in schools because Aboriginal Elders, Aboriginal parents and Aboriginal Education Assistants are usually directly involved in these learning experiences.

The schools offer a range of programs aimed at improving the quality of teaching. Accelerated Literacy, Reading to learn, Learning to read and Quicksmart are becoming increasingly popular. A number of schools report significant improvements in outcomes from Year 3 to Year 5, despite the high rate of mobility in some locations, 40% in one case. These schools have moved kids out of the bottom two bands with improvements in writing and comprehension. It was reported that NAPLAN results in these schools improved significantly in 2008 as a result of a) Accelerated literacy (and the training of staff), b) schools having implemented specific frameworks and programs, and c) staff having completed a cultural awareness program at TAFE.

These relatively new programs are funded through sources such as the Targeted Aboriginal Student Strategy (TASS), Quality Teaching Aboriginal Project (QTIP), Norta Norta, Schools in Partnership (SiP) and the Priority Schools Program (PSP). At one school in Sydney, an Aboriginal parent was employed through TASS to ring the parents and encourage them to come to the school. She ‘sat on the phone for a term’, and according to teachers at the school it worked exceeding well. She would say things like: ‘I haven’t seen you up at the school’. She would also speak to parents in the street. Her manner and method of communication made parents feel like they were welcome at the school.

Those schools with significant numbers of Aboriginal students have developed Personalised Learning Plans (PLPs) in an attempt to make the goals and outcomes more explicit and attainable to both students and parents. One school described PLPs as:

a chance to have a conversation about a child’s aspirations, goals and interests. These may include getting into the school choir, into the zone athletics carnival...We try to get parents to come in with their kids.

There were mixed reports on the success of PLPs with one principal stating that he could not detect any long term benefit, while other principals considered them useful for developing a relationship with parents.

Highlights of teaching practice

We identified several teaching practices at individual schools that would be valuable inclusions in other schools programs. These included relationship to place, strong culture of collaboration among the school and community, and transition to school programs, and these will be examined in the following section.

Relationship to place

All schools recognised the Aboriginal custodians of the land upon which the school is now built. For example, one school on the central coast of New South Wales reported:

Awabakal are the custodians of the country. They are recognised in many different ways in the program and around the school grounds. For example, Boomerang Mountain which was created as an outdoor learning area for the students. It was built by Pop Simon and volunteers from the Aboriginal community and it was built as an outside classroom where students can come together on NAIDOC Day and read stories or do fun activities.

At this school, Acknowledgement of Country is incorporated explicitly into the school pedagogy. Teachers talk with children about why they acknowledge country, and they discuss the concepts of custodianship, connection to Aboriginal land, and tradition.

When we have acknowledgement of country, it is about this school. We explain to kids why we do it, what is a traditional custodian, what is Aboriginal land, why this school has always been on Aboriginal land. Our kids talk about Pop as a story-teller.

However, at another school the principal and assistant principal did not know the name of the Aboriginal custodians of their area and they did not have any links with their local community, or with their local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG). The local AECG is an essential contact for schools because its members know Aboriginal people in their community, and more importantly the right people to speak for that community.

It is also interesting to note that some teachers report the difficulty of teaching place as a concept to children. Place can be taught through history, as the link between past and present, a connection which can be developed through an exploration of the school’s place in the Aboriginal community. The following school has made a start on this by inviting Aboriginal people to the school to tell their stories:

At a recent staff development day we had [the Senior Education Officer from the Department of Eduction and Training]. He told lots of personal stories without the ‘moralising’, ‘without the guilt’. He provided students with an awareness of Aboriginal Australia. He gave the kids an awareness of stereotypes so that they don’t carry them on.

But stereotypes can be difficult to dislodge in the mind of children as the following teachers demonstrate:

There are lots of resources about the past, but very few on the present…there are few resources on the local area…Kids usually have a better understanding of traditional life. There is a need for a connection between past and present.

Kids love learning about Aboriginal people...Kids usually have an image of Aboriginal people as living out in the desert.

Kids usually have a better understanding of traditional life. There is a need for a connection between past and present. Kids here would identify an Aboriginal person as a dancer.

I said to the kids at assembly, would you recognise an Aboriginal person if they walked in here? What would they look like? The kids replied, someone dark, someone from the NT.

One of the crucial aims of this research was to position Aboriginal people in the 21st century through the teaching of Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives. There are myriad resources available to teach about the Dreaming, but one has to search carefully for ways of talking and teaching about Aboriginal people today. Of course there are many readers available, ones which are appropriate for K-6 children and meet a range of syllabus outcomes in the various KLAs, but the pitfalls of stereotyping and excessive generalisations arise from the language used in the classroom. Many teachers continue to talk about Aboriginal people in the past tense and to use the term ‘discovery’ of Australia.

Strong culture of collaboration among the school and community

One school on the central coast of New South Wales reported on its attempts to build community trust and collaboration through providing ‘strong evidence of Aboriginal cultures around the school’. Every parent (100%!) comes to the school to discuss the child’s PLP. The school employs various methods for getting parents involved, observing that ‘once parents know it is a positive experience they are more inclined to come to the school’. The teachers here stated that having a person, who knows how to communicate effectively with parents, and is able to phone and speak with them, helps to maintain the school’s 96 percent Aboriginal student attendance (in 2008). They added that the inspirational leadership of the school executive also makes it happen.

The teachers at this small school reported that their approach to doing business with parents has changed dramatically since 2006, which is evidenced in their statistics on suspensions. In 2006, there were 386 suspensions at the school, in 2007 there were 170 suspensions, and in 2008 there were 17 suspensions:

It’s been an overall approach to Aboriginal education of the school that has brought parents into the school…Elders come in to talk in the classroom and to share their stories. The message goes out to the community that we’re alright, we are respectful and we don’t know everything.

Connell (2009) links good teaching to a ‘strong culture of collaboration among the teachers’. This is certainly case at these schools where teachers work together to weave Aboriginal knowledge into the fabric of the curriculum through careful negotiations with Aboriginal Elders and the community generally. Quality teaching in these contexts is governed by strong collaborations among teachers and the community.

Another school reports a sense of belonging among Aboriginal kids and parents at the school through absence of racist remarks, both overt and covert comments such as ‘we don’t have any Aboriginal children here’. The school reports strong support for Aboriginal cultures, and this is evidenced in the appearance of the school. Indeed the symbolic has become an extremely important indicator of school desire to be involved in the community. Art works in the school grounds (totem poles, mural, paintings), dedicated learning spaces, and flags make the school and its grounds into a welcoming place for parents. The symbolic also appears to reduce the divide in the minds of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children in these schools. One school reports: ‘Now kids at the school do not see Aboriginal kids at the school for their colour’. These practices also include symbolic gestures in teaching materials such as number cards. Another school provides sufficient car parking for parents and visitors so that they feel welcome in the school. A school in western Sydney endeavours to make ‘the teachers accessible to parents’. However, at another school, a number of teachers did not know that there were five Aboriginal students enrolled at their school.

It should be recognised that installing political signifiers in the school grounds can have the opposite effect of reinforcing a homogenous Aboriginal culture, motifs more associated with a traditional society than with contemporary Australia (Russell 2001). And this is where our project started, with a desire to instantiate images in classrooms related to contemporary Aboriginality. Indeed this was also the desire of many teachers. They have many resources based on traditional Aboriginal society, but few relating to 21st century Australia, such as the Indij Readers (2003).

Moreover, the symbolic is only a beginning. The Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd highlighted in his Sorry speech to Parliament in February 2008:

For us, symbolism is important but, unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong. It is not sentiment that makes history; it is our actions that make history (Sydney Morning Herald, 2008, p. 6).

Most teachers reported on the difficulties of building relationships with their community:

We had a teacher who was Gamilaroi and wanted to teach Gamilaroi. We went through the protocols and the program started. But it stopped when he left at the end of the year. It is difficult for us to access local members of the community, even to know who to access and ask. We have an excellent local dance group. People come and go. We find it difficult to maintain continuity in our Aboriginal programs. People in the community move on and we lose contacts.

One of the most requested items of assistance from us included ideas on how to make contact with the Aboriginal community, including local Elders, the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG) and regional consultants from the NSW Department of Education and Training.

The review of Aboriginal education (New South Wales Department of Education and Training and NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group Incorporated, 2004, p. 95) observed that many schools find the political terrain referred to in the following as extremely difficult to traverse:

Factions are formed along kinship lines and have kept Aboriginal communities

strong since time immemorial. Schools that have developed strong partnerships

with their local Aboriginal communities are able to identify Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people who are able to work within and across factions.

It did become clear throughout the project that Aboriginal cultural knowledge and identities must be valued by teachers if schools are to be taken seriously by the Aboriginal community. The school’s approach to doing business with the community is currently evidenced through its attempts to talk with and reach out to parents, to involve them in curriculum design and in their children’s day-day education, for example, through PLPs and through symbolic displays around the school which help to make the parents feel at ease (see above). Most importantly, those schools which report 80-100 percent Aboriginal parent involvement, also ensure that Elders and parents are positioned as teachers in their program. Teachers in schools also need to know who their Aboriginal students are, and whether they have Aboriginal students in their class (given that the school administration has this information through enrolments).

Transition to school programs for Aboriginal children

Transition to school programs allow teachers to make connections with Aboriginal families and to understand what is culturally appropriate. The program can establish a reciprocal relation between the pre-school centre and the school, as was the case at one school. In particular, it prepares the children for the culture of the school and helps to build formal educational cultural competence among Aboriginal children, for example knowing how to answer questions. The principal explained to us that there are many children who do not experience this ‘culture’ at home, they do not experience questions and answer style communication at home, while the style of communication at school is often foreign to them. At home they are told what to do. Best practice will demonstrate to students how to fit-in with the timing and organization of the school timetable, for example explicitly discussing the time to eat at school, and when to put your hand up. Most importantly, good teaching is governed in these schools by building trust with Aboriginal Elders in the community. A teacher in a transition class tells the story:

Nan and pop came into the class and just sat there for days on end. I didn’t quite know what to do with them until one day they never came in. I subsequently heard that they were coming in to make sure that I was OK to teach their children.

Defining Aboriginal perspectives

We asked teachers to define Aboriginal perspectives and we received a range of answers. Teachers at one school replied:

Teacher 1: that’s a really hard one… raising awareness of….

Teacher 2: looking at social justice and discrimination, knowing that we are all Australian.

Teacher 3: At our school, I don’t find that Aboriginal kids identify [as Aboriginal] to us, I have to look at the records.

At an inner suburban school in Sydney, the teachers said

‘Aboriginal perspectives include both content and process’.

At a school in western Sydney, one teacher defined Aboriginal perspectives as:

taking each child’s background experience and culture into consideration when planning learning experiences for Aboriginal students.

The Principal at the same school replied:

I think it is ensuring that the history of all peoples is recognised and the achievements are highlighted. Irrespective of whether you have one Aboriginal student or 100 Aboriginal students, Aboriginal perspectives should be included in the stories. We are having an Aboriginal Science Show in late June. Every teacher has a Little Red Yellow Black Book. Aboriginal policy is introduced. We look at policy during NAIDOC week. To be on the other side gives you another experience…I was in New Guinea and myself and my wife were the only white people in the community. We want to see Aboriginal students bridge the difference in literacy and numeracy and in leadership programs.

He added:

I see there are far more meaningful ways of recognising and acknowledging traditional owners than giving an acknowledgement of country. If we have meaningful talks about the Stolen Generations that is more meaningful. Some parents ask: How come the Aboriginal kids get all the money? We must get past the tokenism to do activities which are inclusive rather than exclusive, of doing activities only for Aboriginal kids.

An Aboriginal teacher at a middle-class suburban school defined Aboriginal perspectives as:

creating meaningful connections into Aboriginal culture and history through adding an Aboriginal view across all KLAs by including information, resources, substantive communication and exposure relevant to topic taught. Aboriginal perspectives may also be viewed by students as a higher order thinking task where they relate learning and solve problems with an outlook of how an Aboriginal person may experience the situation.

At another school, teachers replied:

Aboriginal people sometimes see January 26 differently to non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal perspectives refers to identity and relationships to the land, to the need to include Aboriginal perspectives across the curriculum.

Another school had difficulty in defining Aboriginal perspectives:

[it is a] reference to Aboriginal cultures through Aboriginal people, a combination of theory and practice.

A principal at a rural school summarised Aboriginal perspectives as including:

Knowledge about Aboriginal people and their past and culture. Aboriginal perspectives here are always integrated.

Two teachers at this school added:

It is about history and customs…It is about coming from a background of mistrust [referring to history]. Aboriginal perspectives are catering for individual learning styles and accounting for Bloom’s taxonomy, the three Hats etc. They are non-threatening.

Teachers at a large primary school defined Aboriginal perspectives as:

An awareness of culture. Respect for Aboriginals. Children are now proud of being Aboriginal.

Most teachers struggled to define Aboriginal perspectives, while those who were able to say something, defined these perspectives as ‘knowledge about Aboriginal people and their past and culture’, and ‘respect’, ‘acceptance’. At one small school, the staff commented as a group that Aboriginal perspectives are:

about respecting Aboriginal people as the traditional knowledge holders. It is about inviting them to add to what you are teaching. Aboriginal perspectives are about acknowledging their culture, acceptance. Aboriginal perspectives need to be just. They are about an understanding of Aboriginal culture and what they have been through. Their system was incredible. They had so much to offer.

It’s about respect. It’s about changing your own perspectives as well as putting on a different lens.

Through the teaching of Aboriginal perspectives at these 12 schools, we found that teachers were often developing Aboriginal perspectives in their programs as knowledge about Aboriginal people, as facts about the past, and about the Stolen Generations. The pitfalls of teaching this knowledge as a commodification of Aboriginal perspectives was highlighted by the Assistant Principal at an inner suburban school:

Because it [Aboriginal perspectives] is such an important area to work with, teachers need to be intellectually aware in terms of creating victims etcetera. You need to know that the facts you are presenting are not affecting kids adversely, safety in knowledge to ensure balance. Teachers need to be aware how they are representing Aboriginal kids in the classroom. How do we teach about Aboriginal people? We need to be aware of the social and intellectual element.

This Assistant Principal spoke passionately about the need to reflect carefully on how we represent Aboriginal people to children when we include Aboriginal perspectives. It is not only a question of transmitting syllabus information about Aboriginal people in Australia to children, we also need to analyse what knowledge and perspectives are appropriate to include in the curriculum, and what the pedagogy does to the student. This then raised the question of how teachers could approach the teaching of Aboriginal perspectives as other than the what of teaching and learning (Green, 2010).

We began to identify a clear difference between an Aboriginal perspective and Aboriginal knowledge. Schools in this study have defined Aboriginal perspectives as the syllabus content and information that is transmitted from teacher to student about Aboriginal people, content including Aboriginal shelters, foods, bush gardens, relationships to the environment, Aboriginal art and dancing. What is Aboriginal knowledge, and how does it differ from the perspectives that are taught in schools?

Defining Aboriginal knowledge

Some of the schools in this research invite Aboriginal parents to their school to talk about their relationship to place, and to work with kids on art projects and smoking ceremonies. For example, at an inner suburban school of 420 students:

Parents of Aboriginal kids get involved in the school. Last year [an Aboriginal parent] did a mural based on a dreamtime story in 2008. She has now moved to [the country] Parents are made to feel involved and welcome. They are made to feel that their knowledge and contributions are worthwhile and valuable so that they are happy to return.

A Senior Education Advisor remarked at one of our meetings with a school on the central coast:

Collecting peoples’ stories is so important to teaching the kids in terms of supporting the kids’ identity and sense of place. What would it be like growing up not knowing where you are from, or where your grandparents were born? Some of our kids are like that.

One school on the central coast reported that they had worked with their Aboriginal community to create an outdoor learning area (see above), and through the teaching there, the children learn how the stories of Elders are embedded in their relationship to place and history. Verron and Christie (2007, p. 80) remark that ‘knowledge traditions’ refer not only to a knowledge of place, but also the performance of that knowledge of place and its people through social traditions. The stories that are sometimes told to children by Aboriginal Elders of the school are a performance of Aboriginal knowledge and identity rather than a representation of it.

It is through the telling of these stories in schools that Aboriginal people are performing a relationship to place, while children are learning to understand what a place might mean to the Aboriginal person telling the story. Of course what the Aboriginal person has in mind and what the children learn (as an understanding of an Aboriginal person’s relation to place and history) may be entirely different, and this represents the difficulty of assessing such learning. Such performances of place and identity constituted through the telling of local stories and histories characterise the very essence that is most difficult to transmit and teach in the classroom. This essence is the interaction itself. An understanding of this interaction can be produced between Aboriginal parents and Elders, and children and teachers in the classroom, and in the schoolyard and through their mutual planning and negotiations to include Aboriginal knowledge in the curriculum. This knowledge is not something that can be planned or scripted like a lesson or unit of work. Yet somehow, we continue to believe that we can teach this knowledge as decontextualised, as divorced from the very place and interaction that produces the knowledge.

The school’s interaction with an Aboriginal community including its Aboriginal Education Consultative Committee (AECG) and education advisors is the value of including Aboriginal perspectives in the New South Wales primary curriculum. The learning for the children and teachers alike is constituted through the interaction itself, to produce an understanding of a relationship to place and identity. Unfortunately, this kind of learning is not one that can be replicated across schools. Any perspective is retold and relived in that community and hence the learning is local. Most children will remember little of the narration itself, of how the person is linked to country, but they may learn about the ways of knowing, of how the narration of one’s perspective is integral to the process of maintaining one’s relationships to place and identity. This will also represent the unconscious work of reconciling the relation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children in schools.

Acknowledgement: We would like to acknowledge the assistance of Aboriginal Education and Training Directorate, New South Wales in the initial formulation of the project, along with the insightful comments from Louise Zarmati on a draft of this paper.


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